"If you haven't had a caller asking you for organic hay yet, you soon will," Lou Anderson, president of S&L Commodities, Fairfield, ID, told hay growers at the recent Midwest Hay Business Conference.

"I get calls every week from someone looking for organic hay in our area. I haven't known where any is for about three months and that's kind of a cool deal. What I'm telling you is, there is a market and it's going to get bigger," Anderson said.

Anderson buys organic hay -- hay produced without conventional chemicals and fertilizers for a minimum of three years -- from around 70 growers primarily in Idaho, Utah and Colorado. He also grows organic and non-organic alfalfa on about 4,000 acres of his own. Before going organic, Anderson said, growers should consider several factors:

  1. Packaging. "Look at how (organic) hay needs to be packaged. Small square bales, if they're made of organic hay, are marketable," Anderson said. "I'll bet you, in some of the areas you guys are in, there are small organic dairies starting up or converting over. A lot of those guys want small bales. I could sell a lot of organic hay in small bales, even where we are. And we're in an area where the dairies are giants, and the organic dairies are pretty big, too."

    Don't forget the horse industry when considering the organic market and how you may package your product, he said. "You're not going to produce organic milk or meat from a horse, but a lot of people feel like, because it's organic, it's better for their horses. If people feed their children organic products because they feel it's healthier for them, they're going to feed their horses organic products. I'm not saying that's the case right now; I'm saying that's the thought process."

  2. Quality. "If you're going to grow organic hay and are under the perception that, because it's organic, it doesn't have to be good quality, then you're going to be disappointed," Anderson warned. There should be a good market for organic hay that tests in the 150-RFV range, he added.

  3. Challenges. Growing good-quality hay without conventional pesticides takes a lot of thinking ahead, Anderson said. "You have a method of solving those challenges now. If you couldn't do it the way you do by conventional methods, how would you solve them? If you have a weed problem, how are you going to handle it?"

    Composting and using manure for fertilizer, selecting resistant varieties and using microbial treatments help reduce fertility and pest problems. "There is a lot of research now that wasn't because organic wasn't mainstream enough. Things are coming that will help solve challenges we have right now in soil fertility," he predicted.

  4. Commitment. Anderson said growers committed to growing organic products are successful. "You can make just about anything work if you try."